16 December 2018
A young married couple had two children and the day came for the eldest, a boy, to go to Primary School. The parents weren’t sure how he would react and were delighted that he enjoyed the experience of his first month. Then they noticed he didn’t want to go to school, he wasn’t eating or sleeping as well as normal. Eventually they discovered that there was a bully in his class and this bully because of his size and attitudes was threatening the others that if they didn’t bring him gifts and obey him they would suffer and indeed he would physically beat some of the children. He was taking advantage of his size to terrorise the others. Luckily other parents had the same experience with their children and as soon as they discovered this they were able to get the school authorities to deal with the bully.
In the gospel today the question, ‘what must we do?’ is posed by 3 groups of people to John the Baptist.
Firstly, some people who ask get the answer – share what you have with the less well off, don’t take advantage of what you have that might cause others to suffer.
To the second group, tax collectors, he again says: ‘Don’t take advantage of your position to cheat and defraud others in matters of taxation.
To the third group, some soldiers he says the same: ‘Don’t take advantage of your position to intimidate others and don’t demand bribes.”
So John is telling each group that it is in their daily life situations that they are expected to act honestly and peaceably for the good of their neighbours as each of us is. Christianity is a very practical religion and good deeds on behalf of others and avoiding taking advantage of another is the best way to prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas and at the end of time.
For a number of centuries before John the Baptist no important prophet had appeared in Israel and so the people were hoping one might appear. Obviously John’s appearance in the Jordan area and the fact that he was seen to be a holy man caused the people to think that he might be the expected Messiah. Here was a great temptation for John to take advantage of his position and become famous. But he refused to take advantage of his situation and flatly denies he is the Messiah. He tells the people the one they await is coming and John declares he is not even worthy to undo the strap of his sandals. The one to come will be he who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with the fire of purification
Of course the great Good news is that when Jesus did appear he did not take advantage of who he was to seek power, wealth and fame. The amazing thing is that Jesus is mirroring a God whose last thought is to punish or chastise us if we don’t keep his commandments and laws perfectly.
God will not take advantage of being God to punish us.
God who is Love cannot punish as a response to our failures.
This is the great good news of Christianity. If we could only accept this message that Jesus constantly gives us when he was alive and recorded for us today in the first and second readings. Are the words of the first reading from the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah how we image God? : ‘God will exult with joy over you, he will renew you with his love. He will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival’.
St. Paul, in the second reading, invites us to be happy, not denying that we all have our fair share of difficulties in life. But even whilst experiencing them God is with us wanting to give us an inner joy. This is not the passing joy we have whilst enjoying a party or if our team wins an important game. It is like that of a man I know whose wife is now bedridden and he loves his wife so much that despite the many demands made on him he has a deep down joy because he has great peace and joy by responding in love and fidelity.
I feel so sad that many Christians feel that being a Christian is something they must do because of what they learned at home or at school. They seem to have missed out on the joy Jesus is offering us even now. The reason that I am a Christian is not because I have to be or should be or that God will take advantage of being God and punish me for my failings. What a total misunderstanding of who God is and what Christianity is about. I am delighted that I am privileged to be a Christian and I experience a deep, personal relationship with Jesus and certainly not because I am holy but rather because God is Holy. As it says after the consecration in ‘old’ Eucharistic Prayer 2 ‘we thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you’. If God who knows our weaknesses and failings as well as our positive side counts us worthy then that is very fine with me. Better receive God’s free gift than try and achieve it.
Perhaps then the baptism that Jesus came to bring – a ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ is a fire of purification to cleanse us of a wrong understanding of who God is and what Christianity is about.
Surely Christianity is about a relationship with a person not just about keeping laws. The reason why we keep the laws is to show our gratitude to God and to live the guidelines he gives us in the commandments because he knows that this will make the world a better place for all.
‘Lord Jesus, thank you for loving us as passionately and unconditionally as you do. Purify us of all wrong images we have of God. Give us the Holy Spirit to live out the practical consequences of being your disciples by caring for others. Amen’.
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA